I was in 3rd grade the first time I came face to face with being white. It was on the playground of Fairview Elementary School on the west side of Birmingham, Alabama. Through some set of circumstances I found myself on my back with a classmate on my chest holding some black piece of plastic to my throat. He brought his face down just inches from mine and looked me right in the eyes and said “I ain’t nobody’s n*gger no more”. He was one of the few black children in our school and I honestly do not remember anything that led up to that moment. It is entirely possible, and likely that I had called him that disgusting name just prior to being knocked down. It was quite common in my household and in our family to use and hear the word “n*gger”. It was quite common in most places in the 70’s in Birmingham.
Although the TV crews had left Alabama, and battle for civil rights was seemingly won, life on the ground for the average person changed very little in that first decade. Racial tension simmered under the surface as old pain and frustration was never dealt with, and the adaptive process of races living together began. Much of that adaptation in Birmingham consisted of whites moving farther and farther away from predominately black neighborhoods. My family followed the Southern migration over or through Red Mountain to the white suburbs of Hoover, Vestavia Hills, Homewood and Mountain Brook. The neighborhoods of West Birmingham, where my family had lived for generations, Ensley, Fairview, Fairfield, Wylam and many others were left to rot and die.
Years later I was living in Athens, Alabama, working at my first church as a priest. Limestone County and much of North Alabama are even whiter than the southern suburbs of Birmingham and sometimes the Ku Klux Klan decides they need to come to town to protest. This time they were coming to Athens to protest “illegal Mexican immigrants”. Much of Alabama’s agricultural industry relies on immigrant labor that is paid less than poverty wages. Many of these laborers are undocumented. St. Timothy’s had become a sanctuary of sorts for several families in Athens. We provided a low cost preschool that welcomed children from all races and nationalities. We had actually adopted the preschool from another church in town that had kicked it out, over Christmas break, for having “too many Mexican children”.
The Klan was founded just north of Athens in Pulaski, Tennessee so it would not be a long drive for them to come to Athens and spew their hate. Downtown Athens is also picturesque. A big limestone clad courthouse sits at the center of a quaint town square, the perfect backdrop for photo ops with white hoods.
I decided that we could not let the Klan come to town without a counter protest of some kind. We organized a silent protest that would, quite literally, surround their hate with love. We called the newspapers and promoted our rally and invited people from all over North Alabama to participate. A few days into the news coverage I was sitting in my office at the church and I got a phone call. On the other end of the line was an elderly black man who proceeded to tell me how he had seen our rally in the news and had grown up in Athens. He remembered as a child seeing the Klan ride through on horses in their white robes and hoods and burn crosses in the middle of town. He told me he had lived in fear his whole life. He also said he never thought he would see the day when people would come out against the Klan in Athens and said that if I was willing to stand up to the Klan, he would stand with me.
So on September 15th, 2007 we walked together through the streets of Athens. With hundreds of others we carried signs that read “LOVE” and walked to City Hall where the Klan was gathering. When we got there we surrounded the 7 or 8 members of the Klan and other counter protestors with a circle. We said nothing but let our actions speak.